Benzodiazepine: Physiological effects

Last modified: Thursday, 25. December 2008 - 7:18 am

Benzodiazepines act on the central nervous system by slowing it down, thereby causing sedation and muscle relaxation. Immediate physiologic effects include depressed heartbeat and breathing, and physical unsteadiness. Side effects include skin rashes, nausea, and dizziness.

Regular use of any benzodiazepine can lead to physical and psychological dependence in as little as four to six weeks. Cravings for the drug, increased tolerance and the need for higher and higher doses, and withdrawal symptoms are all signs of dependence on the benzodiazepines. When stopped abruptly, individuals who are dependent on these agents can experience serious withdrawal symptoms and even seizures. Symptoms of withdrawal include anxiety, headache, dizziness, shakiness, loss of appetite, insomnia, and sometimes, fever, seizures, and even psychosis. People who are long-term addicts of the benzodiazepines may need to be hospitalized for withdrawal.

Harmful side effects

When taken in high doses, these drugs can produce some serious side effects. These side effects, which can be a signal that there is too much medication in the body or that toxic effects are being felt by the body, include drowsiness, confusion, dizziness, blurred vision, weakness, slurred speech, lack of coordination, difficulty breathing, and coma.

Driving and hazardous work should not be performed while taking benzodiazepines because they can impair mental alertness and coordination. Persons taking any of the benzodiazepine medications should never drink alcohol. Use during pregnancy and nursing should be avoided as well.

Benzodiazepines can have particularly potent effects when taken during pregnancy, and can cause congenital defects such as cleft lip or cleft palate. In addition, infants born to a mother addicted to the benzodiazepines can also experience withdrawal symptoms including respiratory distress, difficulty feeding, disruption of sleep patterns, decreased responsiveness, sweating, irritability, and fever. In addition, some benzodiazepines can accumulate in higher concentrations in the bloodstream and organs of an infant than in the mother. Also important to note is that these drugs may be present in higher concentrations in the breast milk of addicted mothers than in the bloodstream.

Long-term health effects

Use of any of benzodiazepines for as little as four to six weeks can lead to psychological or physical dependence. Dependence can develop sooner in patients taking short-acting, high-potency benzodiazepines like alprazolam (Xanax), as compared with someone taking a longer acting, low-potency agent such as chlordiazepoxide.

Benzodiazepines also should not be taken by people who have a history of alcohol or drug abuse, stroke or other brain disorder, chronic lung disease, hyperactivity, depression or other mental illness, myasthenia gravis, sleep apnea, epilepsy, porphyria, kidney disease, or liver disease.

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